Decisive Moment

Words and Images by Manuel Acevedo

The Newark where I was born and raised was a city on the verge. After the uprisings in 1967 and the Puerto Rican Riots (or rebellions) in 1974, the city seemed to hover on the imminent edge of disaster, danger, change, and triumph. Through street photography, I gained trust in my ability to capture it all. In order for me to make a photograph, however, I had to determine the “decisive moment” (to quote Henry Cartier-Bresson), defined as that sliver of time significant to an event just before or after the next happening. For me, the decisive moment continues to represent the precise organization of form and the framing of a picture that breathes life into my images.

My first photo essay was the Wards of Newark 1982-1987, a portrait series that captured the city during a time of industrial and residential abandonment. In 1981, I was an amateur photographer—a naïve 17-year-old living in the Vailsburg section of the West Ward on Brookdale Avenue, off South Orange Avenue. My parents, Manuel Sr. and Edith, raised five children. We moved to a five family three-story home shortly after my father’s stint as a numbers runner—in Spanish, un bolitero. We were one of very few Boricua (Puerto Rican) families on the block, which was a cultural mosaic representing the African diaspora, Irish, Italian and Ukrainian descendants. My sense of both demography and geography was limited to Newark, and through frequent travel to visit family in Aguada, P.R., until I was thirteen-years-old.

I was accepted to Newark’s Arts High for my junior year—the same year I was recruited into the Newark chapter of the Guardian Angels , a growing organization of unarmed citizens originally created to combat crime and violence in the New York City subway system. In addition to photographing the Angels, I began to make images in my home and neighborhood; children playing in the streets, my family in the kitchen.

On December 31, 1981 I received a call at home from Chris Taylor, NJ chapter leader and spokesman of the Guardian Angels about Frank Melvin—the first Guardian Angel to be killed by a police officer. He was fatally shot while on patrol at the scene of a burglary on a tavern rooftop near Newark’s Dayton Street projects. I photographed a protest organized by Curtis Sliwa (the Angels’ founder) and Chris and held at Newark’s City Hall. The Guardian Angels were holding up signs demanding a special investigation. It was rumored that the officer who fired the fatal shot and the fallen Angel were close acquaintances. At that time I captured a few memorable images, including one photograph of mirrored sunglasses worn by a fellow member. I framed the composition tightly. It depicted the Angels in formation, marching in front of the hall. Soon after, I borrowed a super-wide angle lens from my art teacher, Mr. K. I wanted to harness the power of a photograph, juxtaposing the human figure against a mild or wild urban background.

To some degree, I took advantage of my participation in the Guardian Angels for greater access to Newark streets and less familiar areas in New York. I had an intuitive sense of injustice and the run down, blighted conditions in my home city, but the continued decline of resources and decaying conditions I witnessed in both Newark and New York City shed light on our shared experience.

The neighborhoods I frequented included well-kept small homes juxtaposed by large condemned properties existing side-by-side. The empty lots turned into overgrown fields with obvious footpaths created over time by residents navigating the abandoned terrain. Many derelict lots expanded throughout South Orange Avenue in both the Central and West Ward.

When I began shooting the Wards of Newark, it was called Newark People. I wasn’t attempting to be a journalist, but I created a photo journal of a special time and place that represented my daily life, routines, and shared conversations. I was diligent in my practice of walking the streets and shooting for days, weeks and months at a time. I spent countless hours with a camera strapped in my hand, driven by an ironic sense of urgency, given that there were only subtle changes in living conditions throughout the wards of Newark over the course of five years.

On Broad and Market Street, faces turned willfully towards my camera with interest and curiosity. People engaged with me, looking close-up and straight into the lens, revealing their complexities, challenges and secrets. The personalities ranged from vendors on the sidewalks, activists, politicians, artists, graffiti writers, jewelry hustlers in alleys, homeless in the parks, tired parents, sleeping babies, and teenagers cutting school, sampling what the streets had to offer.

By nature of time and place, I was a witness and contributor to the graffiti movement, as well. My identity as a street photographer and artist evolved very organically at a time when we were constructing hip-hop (but had no name for it) as an expression of the street. I was rarely without my bag of tools—camera, film, black book and pens—and moved seamlessly from one to the other. My street name was Prins NAM, which stands for No Apparent Motive. I was down with the NRG crew, which was started in the North Ward by Jstarr. He lived a short walk from Elliot Street School in a strong Caribbean neighborhood that was deceptively calm during the day and rowdy at night.

During one of my visits to Jstarr’s apartment, I had an opportunity to make his portrait. His bedroom/painting/music studio was inscribed with cryptic glyphs, symbols, and images that were reminiscent of ancient writings found on the hidden walls of sacred spaces. The overlapping of codes and ciphers were mesmerizing.

My focus shifted in the late 1980’s, early 90’s from portraiture to landscape—with a territorial imperative to reveal its neglected spaces, discarded parts and vacancies in the era of demolition. I began to visualize my Altered Sites project through drawing and photography, combining the two mediums and the latent possibilities of derelict spaces in Newark’s West, Central and North Wards. I drew on top of the photograph to transform the bleakness or under utilized landscapes into visionary architectural proposals such as sites for the discovery of children’s play or adaptations of Russian artist, Tatlin’s tower as bird structures.

These symbols of modernity and spirituality were never built however, and my vision wasn’t as real as the closing of Pabst Brewery in 1986, the willful neglect of the Bricks public housing, abandoned cemeteries, the demolition of beautiful churches and synagogues or the last homes standing on Prince Street that I recorded on film.

Thirty years later, I am bearing witness to Newark, once again, on the verge of transformation with the potential to alter the psychology of the city. The resurfaced landscape feels like my next cue to revisit the Altered Sites project. It’s time to propose projects that engage the local communities and the city at large, as residents await changes that reflect the city’s history with greater transparency and provide real opportunity for the people of Newark.